After his first experience with the fanatical followers of top-flight German touring car racing, Robert Wickens' anticipation level ratcheted up another notch as he prepares for his tin-top debut this weekend.
Wickens got a taste of what it is like to be a Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) driver last week in Wiesbaden, Germany, where the teams were greeted by about 70,000 rabid fans who showed up in the rain for the official unveiling of the 2012 cars.
"It made me even more excited to get the season under way," Wickens said.
"The fans are so enthusiastic about motorsport and DTM. It was a nice way for the drivers to show their respect to the fans. Without fans, motorsport wouldn't be what it is today and I think sometimes we forget that."
The Guelph, Ont., racer starts his maiden DTM race on Sunday at the German Hockenheim track. During the 10-race season, Wickens will drive a Mercedes AMG C-Coupé – his first experience driving a car with fenders. The season has six races in Germany, and one each in Austria, England, the Netherlands and Spain. The series returns to Hockenheim on Oct. 21 for the season finale.
Luckily, Wickens was able to complete several pre-season tests to help him get a handle on his new ride. And despite the unfamiliar experience of having a roof over his head, the 23-year-old feels comfortable going into the first race.
"I think testing has gone pretty well so far, but ultimately I won't know exactly where I stack up until the first qualifying session," said Wickens, who was announced as a factory Mercedes driver earlier this month.
One of the biggest adjustments facing the young driver is the more limited vision from the Mercedes compared to his previous open-wheel cars, such as the World Series by Renault 3.5 he drove to that series' 2011 title. A driver sits low in a formula car, which also hugs the ground closely; the sedan he'll drive this season is much higher and has the added clutter of a closed cockpit.
"It's been a massive learning curve getting to grips with the car, the team, and the references with a roof over my head," Wickens said.
"It's going to be completely different to race because you actually can make minor contact with another driver [in addition to]the fact that your vision is even worse when there's a massive car in front of you."
The other Canadian in the series, Bruno Spengler of Saint-Hippolyte, Que., will also begin 2012 in a new car after leaving Mercedes for BMW at the end of the 2011 season. Spengler is a seven-year veteran of the series. He has nine wins, 11 poles and 26 podiums, and has finished second overall in the championship twice.
With BMW returning to the series after a two-decade absence, the 28-year-old looks forward to the challenge of helping the manufacturer find success in DTM.
"The start of this season will be a special one for me. It is my first year with BMW – and I am really hungry to finally get down to business in the first race," he said.
"It is great for me to be a part of this and to experience this special moment. We worked very hard to gain as much experience as possible over the winter. Our rivals have an advantage over us in this regard, but we want to catch up as soon as possible. To me, this feels like I am starting my career from scratch again."
The other manufacturer in DTM is Audi, which has won six of the 12 DTM crowns since 2000. Mercedes has won the other six. Opel also raced in the series from 2000 to 2005, but won no titles.
The defending champion is Martin Tomczyk, who won the title driving for Audi but has signed with BMW for 2012.
With his first official DTM session set to begin when Friday's practice run at the famed German circuit gets going, Wickens is all business.
"Hockenheim is going to be an exciting weekend for me with a lot of new experiences," Wickens said.
"I am just going to try focus on what's in front of me at the given time and reflect on the whole weekend once it is all over."
New name, new logo
With less than a month to go before its first major race weekend of 2012, the newly renamed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, formerly known as Mosport, unveiled the logo that will represent the facility into the future.
The new logo is predominantly red, with the name in the foreground, along with the Canadian Tire corporate shield. A red outline of the 3.957 kilometre road course flows in the background behind the name.
The Canadian Tire Motorsport Park's 2012 season begins with the Victoria Day SpeedFest Weekend, May 18 to 20. The headline race is the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series season opener on the historic 52-year-old Bowmanville, Ont., road course that has hosted just about every racing series imaginable, including Formula One's Canadian Grand Prix eight times between 1967 and 1977.
Also running on the Victoria Day card are the Trans-Am Series, Canadian Touring Car Championship, Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada, and the F-1000 Championship Series.
Canadian Tire announced a long-term sponsorship deal with the racetrack in February, less than a year after Mississauga racer Ron Fellows and his two partners, Trailcon Leasing president Alan Boughton and Orlando Corp. chairman Carlo Fidani, bought the facility.
Tag, You're Out
Canadians will have only one driver to cheer for this weekend in the IndyCar race in São Paulo, Brazil, after Alex Tagliani's Bryan Herta Autosport (BHA) announced earlier this week that it would not make the trip.
In three races so far this season, the Lachanaie, Que. driver has one 15th place finish and two retirements. BHA uses the Lotus engines, which have proven unreliable at best so far this year.
Lotus and Chevrolet joined Honda this year as engine suppliers in IndyCar. While Chevy and Honda have not been trouble-free, their motors are head and shoulders above Lotus' offering.
Herta's official line was that the team skipped Brazil to concentrate on May's Indianapolis 500. And part of that preparation likely includes investigating a new engine supplier.
James Hinchcliffe, who drives for the Chevy-powered Andretti Autosport team, will wave the Maple Leaf in São Paulo. Hinchcliffe is fifth overall after the first three races.
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